Belonging and Identity Language and Subjectivity Bitches and Sluts--Girl-on-Girl Crime Girlfighting The School Story
Belonging and Identity: Since Cady has been home schooled all of her life, her first high school experience is uniquely able to demonstrate to what degree belonging constructs identity, particularly for adolescents within a high school setting. Her first day of class she is completely isolated because she doesn't know anyone and has no one to sit with at lunch. Fortunately for her, she's saved by "The Greatest People You'll Ever Know" who take her aside and initiate her into the mysteries of high school life, particularly in this school. Throughout the year, Cady's identity will be constructed and re-constructed as much by who she hangs out with as by what she does.
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Language and Subjectivity: Each group is also constructed by the language it uses and the language others use about it. This principle is visible on a macro level simply by examining the names attached to each group which reduce a collection of individuals to one simplistic category. And we see how the Plastics use language to form their own identities and understand who they are. Their identity is very openly formed by the complex rules of the group, such as always wearing pink on Wednesday or not wearing hair in a pony tail more than once a week. It is also constructed through visual language, such as an emphasis on how each member must look down to her not being allowed to shop alone because it is first necessary for the other "friends" to see how the individual looks in an item of clothing. Regina as queen bee also reinforces how the group will be presented through language by telling them what words they can and cannot use. She excoriates Gretchen for her use of the term "fetch," banishing it from the group. But the Burn Book is the ultimate use of language to construct subjectivity. In this book, the Plastics have linguistically put every girl in the school in the object position where they are "acted upon." Beneath their yearbook pictures, themselves a sort of "official" representation of each student's high school identity, are the Plastics' definitions of them. When Regina releases the Burn Book to the school, a riot ensues when it is revealed how and to what degree each girl has been made into an object by others.
Cady also learns to what degree her own identity has been constructed by the language of others. She originally agrees to join the Plastics in order to infiltrate them, but doing this requires that she behave according to their rules, even learning to speak like them. But on the night of the party in her home, Cady realizes to what degree she has become one of the Plastics. Damien and Janice discover that not only has Cady blown off Janice's art show, but she's thrown a party and not invited her original friends. Janice rightfully accuses Cady of having become plastic, and the accusation is true. She has already dethroned Regina and taken over command of Karen and Gretchen, and is honing in on getting Aaron Samuels to agree to be her boyfriend. She's become a glib little liar, among other things telling her parents that she can't go to Madison with them to see Ladysmith Black Mombaso because she has to go to a friend's art show (originally, she told Janice and Damien that she couldn't swipe the Burn Book because that would be stealing), and even wears a dress similar to the one Regina had placed on hold for the Spring Fling before she gained too much weight to wear it.
Word vomit is a type of speech that can temporarily or permanently disrupt the ability of a particular discourse to shape an individual's subjectivity. We first see this when Gretchen is convinced that Regina is mad at her, and starts telling her former best friend's secrets to Cady. Each time a secret slips, Gretchen apologizes (to who, we don't know), stating that she wasn't supposed to reveal that particular piece of information. This Cady describes as "word vomit," which is the eruption of unauthorized speech. Gretchen's word vomit is unauthorized by Regina, the Queen Bee at the time, and has the potential to disrupt the image of herself that Regina wants the world to see. Gretchen's word vomit reveals things such as Regina's parents' marriage is far from perfect, since the two haven't slept in the same bed for a long time, and that Regina herself isn't naturally beautiful since she's had a nose job. But Gretchen's most devastating word vomit is her revelation to Cady that Regina is cheating on Aaron with Shane Oman. This information is later regurgitated in Cady's own word vomit--she blurts it out to Aaron as they study together. But word vomit is also Cady's undoing. When she and Aaron are together in her bedroom, she starts speaking some of the "secret truths" of the Plastics to Aaron, namely describing him as Regina's former property. While this is true in a sense in the way the other Plastics treat him, it's certainly not true anywhere else, and the revelation makes Aaron also see that Cady here is no different that Regina, thereby ruining her chances at a relationship with him.
Cady can only reclaim the ability to define herself when she speaks the truth. When she refuses to acknowledge making up a rumor about anyone during the after school girls healing session, she demonstrates to what degree she is still a Plastic. Thus, when Regina accidentally slips in front of a bus, no one believes Cady when she claims that she didn't push her rival. Only Cady's public confession that she lied about Ms. Norbury being a drug pusher can even begin to let her change her identity to one she feels comfortable inhabiting.
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Bitches and Sluts--Girl-on-Girl Crime: The ultimate act of objectification among girls is for them to call one another bitch and slut, which they do with alarming frequency. Female friendship differs from male friendship in that it depends so much on talking. One girl might complain about a problem, and another girl responds by sharing a similar problem of her own. When the second girl shares a similar story, she is not attempting to change the focus of attention to herself so much as she is helping construct a broader conversation about the topic itself. This sort of communication, this sharing of personal experience, permits the participants to jointly construct their identity. They are similar in that they share the same problems, and thus they are also part of a greater whole. But female friendships can also turn nasty quickly. Nearly overnight a girl can find herself ostracized from her group of best friends for inexplicable reasons, suddenly finding themselves called "bitch or slut." This is what happened with Regina and Janice's friendship in 8th grade. Before, the two were best friends. But then Regina got mad at Janice and subsequently got her ostracized from the group by accusing her of being gay. Whether or not Janice is gay is not the point. An accusation of being gay is not any different here than being called a bitch or a slut. Among adolescent girls, this is the ultimate categorization of someone as completely Other. And the consequences of such treatment are in no way trivial. Janice has her revenge in the film, but it is indicated that she suffered greatly. Janice drops out of school for the rest of the year, and when she returns for her first year of high school, her appearance is radically altered, signifying to what degree she has been scarred by the experience. She has cut off all of her hair, signifying on some level that she doesn't want to be a girl if being one means enduring capricious meanness. Janice now spends all of her time with her friend Damien, who is safe because he is both not a girl, but also not a hetero man, and his particular gender identity gives him a personality that makes hanging around with him similar to having a girl friend. Of course, I don't mean to trivialize Janice and Damien's friendship. They also become best friends because they have a good deal in common.
The derogatory terms "bitch" and "slut" when used by women about women indicate to what degree the recipient is being ostracized. To be a bitch or a slut means that a girl is accused of no longer falling within the acceptable limits of femininity in that she possess an unfeminine sexuality that knows no bounds. When girls use this term against other girls, it demonstrates how they are policing the borders of femininity. When a girl is called a bitch or slut by other girls, she is cast out of individual clique, and by implication the entire sex. When men use these terms for women, it signifies to what degree they are seen as objects to be degraded. And when women describe other women in this way, they are helping men who view women as objects.
However, in calling attention to what the film calls girl-on-girl crime, it does not get the larger picture about how these girls are embedded in a much wider power structure in which girls are encouraged to see heterosexual relationships as the key to their future happiness.
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Girlfighting: In her book Girlfighting, Lyn Michael Brown describes a phenomena she calls "girlfighting" in which girls savage one another as children and adolescents. Both victims and perpetrators of girlfighting often report being scarred for life by the experience, and sometimes, girlfighting even continues well into adulthood.
Girlfighting has so long gone without being discussed seriously because a) it's more hidden than boys more physical confrontations with one another and b) it's seen as trivial because it involves girls who are using words rather than fists to wound, and girls are seen as "naturally" more bitchy than boys. Girlfighting is a way for girls to have agency (at least of a destructive and limited sort) in a sexist universe that denies them the power given to their male counterparts. One way girls are denied agency is through the continuous injunctions to be "nice" which includes more than just sharing, but also necessitates that the girl not say anything openly hostile, or even controversial, and that she completely disavow unfeminine emotions such as hate and anger. The result is not a more civilized person, but instead, someone whose repressed feelings emerge in nasty and less visible ways. So when girls have a disagreement, they are likely to fight through methods such as whispering campaigns rather than fist fights. We learn of one such whispering campaign soon after the film opens, when Damien alludes to Janice's former friendship with Regina. The summer before high school, Regina turns on Janice, and reasserts her power as queen bee by pressuring all of the other females in her group to exclude Regina on the pretense that she is a lesbian. Regina's slander of Janice culminates in the circulation of a petition whereby signers, all of those who wish to remain in Regina's good graces, agree that Janice is a lesbian, and therefore, has stepped outside of the boundaries of an acceptable and narrowly proscribed femininity where girls grow up not only to be heterosexual, but to demonstrate their heterosexuality through continued vigilance of their appearances.
Regina's ostensible reason for claiming that Janice is a lesbian reveals more about herself, and the motivations for girlfighting, than it does about Janice's purported sexuality. Regina suspects that Janice is a lesbian because she objects when Regina suddenly begins to pay less attention to her in favor of her boyfriend. This interruption in female friendships is seen as completely natural and desirable in our world, yet it reveals to what degree girls are pressured to become male identified at a young age. Girlfighting often occurs when girls attempt to make themselves more desirable to boys. They and their culture views their desirability to boys as important since having a male companion demonstrates to what degree a woman in acceptably feminine. And just as importantly, a woman's relationship with a male marks her as adult in that she has now taken her place in her culture, at the side of a man. There are also financial rewards for women who take (or are given) this place. We often view as most "successful" women who are able to attract males who are good providers (regardless of their other qualities). And given the great inequity of salaries between men and women, being married is one way that a woman can help become more financially stable. Marriage (to a middle class man, anyway), is more likely to give a woman access to things such as health care, something not offered in many working class or even entry level professional jobs. And marriage helps a woman subsidize her childbearing since she will have a mate who can earn money if she chooses to (or has to) quit working to raise the children. So girlfighting is the beginnings of this cat fight for male attention, which confers social respectability and financial stability.
Of course, some women choose to opt out of this cat fight entirely since they question the value of the "prize" they can receive for winning. We can see through the film's adult female characters what is in store for women who have participated in girlfighting (and won) or opted out of this system. Regina's mother is an example of what awaits the woman who is victorious in girlfighting. Her looks and demeanor have presumably attracted a mate who can provide her with all the trappings of wealth, but her life is far from happy. She and her husband have nothing in common, and don't even sleep in the same bed, and he doesn't look like a very desirable mate in any case. Instead, Regina George's mother spends her days reliving her past glory with her pathetic attempts to remain youthful and pretend that she's really not that different from her popular teenaged daughter. The small bit we see of Regina's little sister gives us a glimpse of the frightening way that Mrs. George must have raised Regina. We see Regina's little sister by herself watching television. One time she is watching a Girls Gone Wild video, and taking from it the lesson that girls who expose themselves to boys get male attention. Ms. Norbury and Cady's mom do not live lives that have been guided by a narrowly defined version of femininity. Ms. Norbury is a math teacher who lives a fulfilling and interesting life, in spite of not having a man to share it with at the moment and having to work a second job to make enough money. It is important that Ms. Norbury teaches math rather than another subject such as English, art or music, since women are underrepresented in math and the hard sciences due to sexist ideas about women's "natural" abilities. Ms. Norbury's proficiency in math demonstrates to young women that they too can succeed in this subject. Young women particularly need this encouragement in middle and high school when they are strongly encouraged by popular culture to embrace a vacuous version of femininity that views proficiency in any intellectual pursuit, particularly something traditionally seen as masculine such as math, as a sign that she is not worthy of male attention. Thus, it's not surprising that Regina strongly discourages Cady from joining the mathaletes since to do so would be social suicide. Cady's mother is another example of a woman who is far happier for not embracing this vacuous idea of femininity of which girlfighting is a result. She is a successful scientist, and the family moves to Chicago for her job, not her husband's. Cady's parents' relationship is characterized by love and mutual respect rather than the animosity typical of Regina's parents' relationship.
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The School Story: Mean Girls is another example of the school story, where the protagonist learns lessons more outside of the classroom than in. Mean Girls has many of the elements of the traditional school story, such as a fight with the school bully, threatened expulsion, and sports (is competing for male attention a sort of sport?). And Cady learns fairly predictable lessons at the end of the film as a result of what happened outside of the classroom rather than in it.
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